Bethel judge accused of misconduct

Posted: Wednesday, November 19, 2008

ANCHORAGE - A judge in Bethel finds himself on the witness stand at a hearing in Anchorage before the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct.

District Court Judge Dennis Cummings, 62, is accused of misconduct in a complaint that describes a hearing in his courtroom as chaotic after the prosecution and the defense learned he had handed a witness a note about the evidence.

Cummings, who briefly worked as an assistant district attorney in Anchorage before taking a prosecutor's job in Bethel, was appointed to the bench in December 2005 by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski.

The Alaska Judicial Council recommended Cummings be thrown out because of the Bethel controversy, low ratings from lawyers on his legal abilities and other issues. However, voters agreed this month to retain Cummings in office.

The case against Cummings concerns his communications with a witness in a Bethel domestic violence trial earlier this year.

Such serious cases against Alaska judges occur just once every two or three years, said Marla Greenstein, executive director of the commission. The commission could dismiss the case or recommend a sanction ranging from public censure to removal to the Alaska Supreme Court.

The complaint was filed in June. Cummings himself alerted the commission to problems in how he handled the Bethel trial.

"I knew I messed up. I wanted to report it," Cummings testified Monday.

The judge only wanted to bring a contradiction in testimony to the attention of the prosecution and the defense, and admits he bungled it, according to his lawyer, Jonathon Katcher.

In the case, the defendant was accused of twice violating a protective order obtained for his wife. At the trial on March 10, a state trooper testified that he didn't know of any reason the man couldn't still have contact with his children.

But the underlying protective order, which Cummings approved back in June 2007, prohibited the defendant from visiting the children.

During a break in the trial, Cummings handed another trooper, Joey Beaudoin, a note urging him to look at that part of the protective order. Before he became a judge, Cummings had been part of a regular card-playing group that included Beaudoin, and the two were friends, the trooper said in previous testimony in the disciplinary case, a transcript of which was handed to the commission.

When the judge gave the trooper the note, he made a comment to the effect of "just in case you want to go fishing," Beaudoin testified.

It's improper for a judge to have contact with only one side of a court case, an act known as an ex parte communication.

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